11/22/22

Dog Culture

The notion that culture is specifically human– that animals may have instincts and typical behaviors, but do not transmit them through some animal pedagogy– may be brandished by people claiming a hard-headed approach to reality, but “instinct,” when you get down to it, is not much more material than the soul.* Where are the neural correlates of nesting behavior, of seasonal migration, of pecking orders? I can agree that anthropomorphism isn’t a good way to talk about animal minds, that it makes us talk like missionary ethnographers, but when I critique something, I like to have something better to put in its place. For now, unfortunately, the cupboard is bare.

When theory fails, go back to description, which is where I was early this morning when this train of thought started down the track. I was watching Mila, to whom I am connected by affective bonds and sometimes a blue leash, go about her business in the neighborhood. She sniffs; goes, impelled by some deductive process I can’t follow, from one sniffing spot to the next; and moves on. The tree trunks, rocks, and lintels that boy dogs have peed on get most of her attention. But every now and then she picks a spot, positions her hindquarters at an angle, and applies a little jet of pee; then takes up her walking again.

It was the little jets that got my attention. Pardon me if this is vulgar, but when I pee, I am taking care of a physical need– an animal need, some might say. I have liquid in my bladder and I want it out. A satisfactory pee is one that empties the bladder entirely. If something interrupts me halfway through– someone coming in or the phone ringing– it’s not at all comfortable to postpone the second part of the program. An animal action, in the sense I’m designating now, is a behavior that aims at meeting a need and is accomplished when the need is met.

But Mila makes her bladder stop when she’s posted just enough to let other dogs know she’s been there, and goes on her way to drop another of her liquid Easter eggs halfway down the block. This is semiotic behavior, a kind of communication, achieved by modifying– even frustrating– the animal behavior which it takes as its raw material. Dogs have culture, all right. It’s not animal. It’s a culture they perform for each other’s benefit. Shaking hands, standing on their hind legs, wearing cute little hats, are not dog culture but an imposition from ours that other dogs must find meaningless. Maybe this dog culture has something instinctive at its base– there we are again with the hot potato of “instinct”– but the ability to interrupt and control an animal process in order to do something generically unrelated to that process is culture. (I wonder if an objective description of human culture would differ much from that.)

Brillat-Savarin said: “Les animaux se repaissent; l’homme mange; l’homme d’esprit seul sait manger.” I trust the distinctions he’s drawing by the verbs more than I do the distinctions drawn by the nouns.

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* Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals: “It is notorious how powerful is the force of habit…. This applies to the nerves of motion and sensation, as well as to those connected with the act of thinking. That some physical change is produced in the nerve-cells or nerves which are habitually used can hardly be doubted, for otherwise it is impossible to understand how the tendency to certain acquired movements is inherited.” “Otherwise it is impossible to understand”: in other words, I don’t understand it, but I have only one hypothesis to go on.

11/19/22

Deadbird

I stopped studying bankruptcy law 18 years ago. I am not an attorney. Still, I think the gross outlines of Chapter 11 are still in place.

Twitter, or what is left of it, will be in Chapter 11 in a month or two, thanks to three of its largest creditors. The court will pay professionals to scrutinize the company and find out what its assets and liabilities are. Then the Trustee will determine whether the company can be made to work and emerge from Chapter 11 under new management. I am certain that Musk will be no part of it. Or, he will say the company is DOA, and the only way out is to liquidate Twitter. And here’s the interesting part. Because Musk is the face of Twitter, and he is the alter ego of the company, the court can “pierce the corporate veil” and use Musk’s own assets to satisfy the creditors. These assets mainly consist of shares of Tesla and SpaceX. If they are liquidated, the share prices of these two companies would plummet due to a loss of investor confidence. In turn, this would further diminish Musk’s fortune.He will probably be left with a few billion, chump change. I can only imagine the good he might have done with all that money – global healthcare for all, a preferential option for the poor. But, no. Mr. Musk will have the fanciest lawyers, and he may emerge able to found another company without impediment. May the Almighty forbid it.

Current BK practitioners, what do you think?

11/18/22

Philology in the Bedchamber

Last night in a dream I solved one of those problems that, as that old tease Thomas Browne said, “although puzzling… are not beyond all conjecture,” namely “what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women.”*

The answer that came to me was obvious: Sheila.

Why? In French, Achilles is “Achille.” A little transposition, and voilà!

It made perfect sense under dream-logic. Next up, “what song the Syrens sang.”


* Sir Thomas Browne, Hydrotaphia, Urn-Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk.

11/2/22

Almost but not quite

Nan Z. Da, Intransitive Encounter: Sino-U.S. Literatures and the Limits of Exchange (Columbia UP, 2018)

Madhumita Lahiri, Imperfect Solidarities: Tagore, Gandhi, Du Bois, and the Global Anglophone (Northwestern UP, 2021)

Adhira Mangalagiri, States of Disconnect: The China-India Literary Relation in the Twentieth Century (Columbia UP, 2023)

Do I detect a theme here?

11/1/22

How I Benefited from Affirmative Action

I’m not going to make the gesture, beloved of gotcha!-debaters and the “check your privilege” crew, that I have benefited my whole life long from being situated in a certain class, gender, Pantone color range, and so forth, that made access to academic institutions easier. Partly because it’s self-evidently true, and I don’t like to waste time on the obvious; partly because, even if it’s true, a whole lot of people can exhibit exactly the same social and phenotypical traits as me and not pursue, or seek to pursue, a whole lot of academic rewards.

My purpose is not to bemoan and regret the advantages I have had through that kind of affirmative action, but to celebrate the good things the other kind of affirmative action has brought me and others, and most of all to point out to the Supreme Court the hundreds of ways the likely outcome indicated by their lines of questioning and, indeed, the case they agreed to hear, are misconceived.

College before the 1960s was in most cases an extension of the country club, to hear our elders tell it. Kids from comfortable families went there to network, to play sports, to major in beer, to eyeball potential marriage partners, and of course to get those all-important draft deferments. If your family could pay for it and you met the minimum standards, the question “Why do you belong at the University of X?” did not have to be asked. Of course there were exceptions: places where physics nerds or philology freaks congregated, places with a professional orientation, and the outstanding women’s colleges that did not specialize in the M.rs. degree. I suspect the HBCUs were an exception to this pattern, but they too probably harbored a number of jocks, networkers, and inheritors. A college had its traditional target population and drew from it. Life went on, pretty much the same from generation to generation, with football drawing most of the attention and professorial research being a kind of institutionally tolerated hobby.

With the requirement to show that they were taking concrete and “affirmative,” yes, steps, and implementing them “with all deliberate speed” (ah the lawyerly knack of concocting phrases that sound apodictic but are vague in application!), those same colleges started to have to ask the question, “Why does Student N belong in our programs?” And they had to ask it in a new way: not the way that implies that you have to be “their type,” and they know what that type is. I’ve never worked in an admissions office, but what I hear suggests that there was always an active search to pull in those students whose admittance would result in donations for the institution (thus, legacy kids and the children of the rich); to that type of background research was now added the requirement to show that the institution was making an effort to diversify its draw. “Diversify,” according to preset criteria; and we all know how crude those criteria can be. (How high does an Okinawan planning to major in art history rate against an Ojibwe planning to major in ethnic studies, and how are the percentages of blood inheritance to be calculated?) But it was actually a good thing, however crude the machinery invoked to make it happen.

I went to school with a lot of kids who differed from me along many axes. Let’s start with gender: by the early 1970s the august New England institutions had broken down and admitted women. When I went to my good Southern college in the late 1970s it had crossed that bridge a long time ago, and others: I found myself studying with and befriending kids who had discovered that they were attracted to people of the same sex, and so forth. (I had fairly bohemian parents, so the existence of gay folks was not a surprise to me, but the fact that people could be out and not confidential about it was new.) The fraternities and sororities were maintaining 1950s gender theory with all its associated behaviors, but I had no interest in joining. In fact my main reason for refusing to apply to any of the schools where I would have been a legacy was that my relatives wanted to write to the fraternity chapter of the school concerned; and to get a call from the local SAEs, or whatever, was the last thing I wanted. I felt, in fact, unease with people of my own class and background, and avoided them whenever possible. I regret that I lost touch with some marvelous people who landed on the wrong side of this instinctively drawn line. People who were going to graduate and go straightaway to work in the family firm, even if they were, technically speaking, smart enough to get a high score on their SATs (and not all of them were), did not have anything to say that I wanted to hear. Without having a theory about it, I hung out with people who were unlike me according to the superficial race-class-gender criteria, but like me according to the criteria that mattered. These were the people who could tell me things I didn’t already know. When we read Baudelaire or Livy together, I could see how the same string of six words would bring up different associations for us. Not to mention the late-night discussions after falafel and Stroh’s, where we got into the how and the why and the what-to-do of everything. That was my real education.

It never occurred to me to pick my friends on the basis of their racial category or any other generalized label. If I had X many black friends, the number of black kids with whom I didn’t feel a particular vibe was many multiples of X; and that’s the way selection operates on the personal level. The institutional level is important because the group of people admitted presents to the individual student the roster of possibilities. If you go to a school where a large degree of homogeneity obtains, you’re not going to meet those kids who had to split one can of Husband-Pleasing Ranch Style Beans four ways for supper, or the ones whose parents had had to barricade the door against the Klan. I’m grateful to Duke University for thinking (or having to be forced to think) about whom to admit in a way that people of the 1950s could not have imagined.

The effects of bringing a population of 18-year-olds who have experienced widely different life courses, and I don’t mean some who went to Exeter and some who went to a Swiss finishing school, are vast. When the 1980 version of myself asks, “How do I know that my point of view is the right one?,” I have lots of examples of other points of view in mind. As I go into professional life, whatever that life may be, I have at least been called to notice other people’s lives and to see that those lives matter to them.

The Supreme Court, following in the steps of the famous Bakke decision, envisions college admissions not from the point of view of an administration that wants to create the most stimulating and various environment for its students, but from that of the one student who got rejected from Harvard despite having test scores that were at least as good as some other person’s who did get admitted. That student will think that he or she has been wronged, because he or she lacks the ability to imagine that a life in which s/he went to Williams, or Arizona State, or Stanford, was equally good and possibly even better. This one-track mind is, I suspect, the common vice of most right-wing activists. “I want what I want because I want it, and I have a right to get it!” They suppose that in the world of the 1950s (the world as it ought to have been, they think), they would have naturally been granted this or that thing, and that now that they are not going to get that thing, the world having changed, their lives are damaged and they must sue for redress. My advice for anybody who wants to keep their brain active and flexible is not to think that your life course is so inevitable. It would be good for you to meet some people who are not the people your parents, or your sociological category, think you ought to meet. I am grateful for what affirmative action has done to me. And for me. I am concerned that future kids may not have that intensive exposure to other young lives. So I am waiting for a Supreme Court with fewer blinkered party hacks to take the long view and return to considering the common good in the broadest sense.

Affirmative action never took anything away from me. What it gave me is immense, and I reap the benefits every day, in friendship, ethical awareness, and ability to think. Not that I’m perfect in any of those domains.

10/24/22

Shirking controversy

The flood of bills in state legislatures seeking to prohibit “divisive concepts” in the public schools must be deeply gratifying to those who long for the good old days of McCarthy and HUAC. If concepts such as inequality of opportunity and the existence of gay people are so scandalous, just imagine what history books will be like when they’re satisfactorily sanitized of any truthful or uncomfortable content. Or don’t bother imagining: my friend Bryan has dug out a textbook used in Tennessee schools in the 1960s-70s, where in the chapter about Reconstruction we read the following:

“The Ku Klux Klan started in May 1866… The declared aim of the order was ‘to protect the innocent, the weak, and the defenceless’… Other aims were to support the United States Constitution, and to aid in the execution of all constitutional laws…. The Klan had a restraining influence on the excesses of the Loyal Leagues, and of extremists in the Freedmen’s Bureau.” 

Mary U. Rothrock, This Is Tennessee: A School History (Knoxville: Rothrock, 1963), pp. 310-311.

I shudder to think of the people who would find such an account inoffensive. But that’s what we’re headed toward if we don’t stop these educational gag orders.

Underneath the manufactured crisis of “parental authority” vis-à-vis the public schools is a combat for memory. Public memory is implicitly always contested and contestable. It contains memories that are suppressed, oversold, neglected, ignored, criminalized, the concern of a coterie, falsified, or merely potential– all in a constant competitive roil and boil. And it matters what you remember. Ask someone from Eastern Europe. Or one of the imprisoned scholars of China. Or someone from Latin America, or Africa. If these interlocutors are too exotic, or too busy to talk to you, then get in touch with a Tennessean of any color, gender, or age.

10/2/22

Paul Before Paul

(pronounced at the conference “The Moral and Intellectual Legacy of Paul Farmer,” Harvard Medical School, October 1, 2022)

“It is incomprehensible, the fact that someone can become something so quickly. I’ll never forget the moment when what used to be my father arrived in an urn of fake marble.” That is Paul Farmer speaking, in 1985, from a letter I’ve been keeping, like all of his letters, through countless moves and life changes. Like all of you, I can’t bear to see Paul turn into a thing, and one way of forestalling that is to make his words resound again.


            I had the astonishing good fortune to befriend Paul in 1978 or 79 and to keep up with him ever after. We exchanged a lot of letters (for the younger ones in the audience, a “letter” is a document often written by hand on paper and sent through an agency called the “post office”). Whether in person or by letter, conversation with Paul was a constant laser-tag stream of jokes, questions, gossip, reflections, and grandiose plans. I don’t want to claim excessive privilege from this long acquaintance, which I’m certainly not alone in having, but today it allows me to let Paul speak for himself from the time before he was Paul, so to speak.

We’re talking today about Paul’s moral and intellectual legacy, Paul as a world-historical figure, as Arthur Kleinman said this morning. Yes, we must. I think Paul really came into his own when PIH demonstrated, first, that MDRTB was infectious and could be cured, even in the poorest communities; and second, that HIV could be controlled, also in the poorest and least-equipped communities, if only the necessary drugs were made available. These two victories (owed to many, but many who were inspired or led by Paul) solidified his position in global health and made his so-called idealism look like practical common sense. But I want to take you back to a time when Paul was just a guy named Paul, so to speak, when nobody knew about him and he had little but his own stubborn energy and commitment to go on.   

            One of the characteristics that made him so endearing was his ability to focus on the particular person in front of him, not caring at all about whether that person was important or influential—since every person is important to him or herself, and he could adopt that perspective. An example. 1983, and Paul was back home from Brooksville after a stint in Haiti—recovering from malaria, as I learned later. But he found time to write me a succession of missives chronicling his erotic pursuit through the swamps of an elusive blue heron named Great Blue—a sort of comic allegory of one of our frequent topics of discussion, our ongoing late-adolescent girlfriend problems. My problems were not serious in any sense, but he cared enough to give me therapy through parody. He wrote from Haiti after a brief visit to Boston that he was “relieved to be free of Jack Frost and his foliage-hating henchmen.” A month or so later, from Boston: “I am going to Haiti in 19 days (Ba-m nouvel zanmi ou!) for a site visit, as they say in development set jargon, and I wish it were for 19 years.” I got to travel around Haiti with him, got to know and admire the great Father Fritz Lafontant who was Paul’s strongest local supporter, and saw for myself how completely dedicated he was to the place and to all Haitians (the zanmi, “friends,” he mentioned were some Haitian neighbors of mine in New Haven whose lives and extended family he never failed to enquire about). Some of the pictures you’ve seen this morning were taken by me in 1983, starring a gangly, grinning, excited Paul, in his real country and in his element. I only wish I had taken more. In 1983 Haiti was still in the grip of the Duvalier kleptocracy, and we had to be careful what we said and to whom, because Baby Doc’s informers and enforcers were everywhere. That changed in 1986 with the déchoukaj or eradication of the Duvaliers. Paul wrote me: “Still celebrating about Haiti. Touch and go for a bit, as Père was ‘missing’ for 10 days (‘Li kache nèt!’). He resurfaced, quit the maquis, the day after the Baby left.” As you know, the ebullience didn’t last. A junta took control and declared Paul persona non grata for several years, forcing him to remain, unhappily, the prisoner of Jack Frost and Harvard. Those were hard years for the clinic in Cange: years of intimidation and scarcity. Then came, in 1994, the chance to go back. Paul’s first act was to give the clinical staff time off: “On Friday, it was my great pleasure to send the bulk of the medical staff—two doctors and two nurses—home. No problem, I said—I can cover both the general and the women’s clinic. The first couple of hours was fun, straightforward (malaria, bronchitis, one case each of typhoid and TB, diarrheal disease, some dermatoses, impetigo, etc.). But then came a tibial fracture. As you know, the X-ray machine is down, so I had to set it manually and cast it (thanking all the while my ortho tutor)… Less than an hour ago I delivered my first post-Titid baby.” “I arrived to find no asthma meds (mine are gone now too…), no metronidazole, no cipro, kanamycin, no sterile saline solution, no catheters, and no morphine. Ringer’s lactate is the only IV solution available. The women’s health clinic is poorly stocked…” “The health crisis is unprecedented… Cange has the only functional medical care in the entire central plateau. Three years ago, it was one of 7 comparable institutions.” 

            The harm done by those harsh years took time to repair. Merely repairing was never on Paul’s agenda, though: “There are enough new cases of AIDS in the central plateau, and enough horror stories, to warrant the building of a small hospice. This is something Fritz and I had discussed last year, and it seems, more than ever, a noble idea….” That noble idea led to the provision of advanced therapies that brought HIV patients in the Cange clinic back to life and health and proved the naysayers wrong. 

            You know the story from then on. We are all grateful to Paul. Even if we were not his patients, he did cure us, many of us at least, of our depressions and hopelessness, of the feelings and thoughts of futility and resignation that disarmed us before the injustices he wouldn’t accept. It seems to me that he knew from the start, from his gangly, giggly start, what he needed to do. I was fortunate to have him for 43 years as my reality check, my moral compass, the person I could count on to read my messy drafts, the friend I could tell anything to. Every one of you, I know, can say something similar. 

            Paul sometimes reminded me of his namesake, the apostle Paul. You remember, the one who said that the wisdom of the world is folly in the eyes of God and the folly of the inspired is the true wisdom. Surely it took more than a grain of folly, or wisdom, to fail to understand why people in Haitian villages should not expect the same quality of healthcare that the well-heeled citizens of Cambridge, Mass., expect. As Confucius said: “I need two kinds of people, crazy ones and careful ones. Crazy ones to forge ahead; careful ones to avoid making mistakes.” (必也狂狷乎, 狂者進取, 狷者有所不為; Analects 13) Paul could be as careful as anyone, but his soul, if I may speak in such terms, was with the craziness. He loved defying passive acquiescence. Some of his more stinging phrases hang for me as brightly as warning comets in the sky: “managing inequality,” “socialized for scarcity,” “medical nihilism.” And on the bright side: “the hermeneutic of generosity,” “the preferential option for the poor,” “expert mercy.” Paul’s priorities were: prisoners first, then patients, then students. You can analogize to fit your own sphere of action. I always try to do so.

09/28/22

Atavism

So, the current Italian Fascists, who will now run the country, cut their teeth on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Pseudo-medieval derring-do always works in the same way. Two centuries ago, it was Sir Walter Scott whose Ivanhoe beguiled the Southern planter’s son.

09/15/22

Mistakes

I have been making mistakes all week in the afternoon service, and a friend tried to cheer me up by telling me that even the Kohen Hagadol was corrected by his fellow priests.

Sadly enough, the reason why the Kohanim Gedolim [High Priests] needed help with their services as per Mishnah Yoma [the book of the Mishnah dealing with Yom Kippur] was that they often attained their position by bribery to enjoy the position’s emoluments. They were in real danger from God if they were to exercise their duties in an inaccurate or faithless way. The priests sequestered them a week before Yom Kippur and drilled them mercilessly on the precise points of the ceremony.  Perhaps the most perilous moment was when the Kohen Gadol had to pronounce the 72-letter Name of God, which effected the remission of sin for everyone. The shofars blasted as long as they could, but the Kohen Gadol had to say the Name under them. Often it was too much for the Kohen Gadol to learn the Name, and so, the backup Kohen, the Kohen with the most kehuna [priestliness], would pronounce it.

A year in which the Name was not pronounced correctly was an inauspicious and possibly deadly year for the Jewish people. One can imagine that the source of our national tragedies commemorated on 9 Av came from failures in Temple services on Yom Kippur.

The story of the Names, and how they evolved beyond the Tetragrammaton, has always fascinated me — how we could force God’s direct attention. My knowledge of the subject is limited to the Midrash, or, to be more precise, Die Legenden der Juden, a massive Midrash anthology from the early 20th century compiled by Louis Ginzburg. The simplest name of God is one character long: the yud. It went on Cain’s forehead, the message and its signature in one. It is amazing how many “magic numbers” we know of that cohort that could determine the length of one of God’s names. One, two, four, five, seven, eight, and then the squares of those numbers. And all of these letters had their value in gematria. The longest Name is seventy-two letters, and it was put in Jacob’s coffin as the Israelites left Egypt. Later, some prosaic medieval sages simply put together the consonants from lines in Psalm 21 and 23 to create a Name, although we don’t know whether it worked. And, of course, there’s the late Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the story “The Nine Million Names of God.” He said that you could simply work out permutations of letters to find the name by exhaustion of the problem space; in the story, there is a success, followed by the stars in the sky going dark one by one. One could imagine some unlucky Israeli computer science graduate student printing out the Name’s permutations and pronouncing them in the same manner. There is a medieval precedent for this. The scholar Moshe Idel writes in his book on the Golem that the Name is required to give life to the Golem and that the Maharal and assistants spent weeks working out the permutations, chanting as they went until the Golem quickened. The Maharal lived.

Now that we only know the four-letter version of the Name, Yom Kippur is a lengthy and draining holiday. No more, as in Temple times, can the scapegoat be let loose and the Kohen Gadol pronounce the Name, a procedure which might have taken under thirty minutes. The day, like Tu B’av [a day of joy after the wrenching Tisha B’av fast], could in its greater part consist of proposals, betrothals, and joy because we had all been redeemed.

Now, we labor and sweat at the most important job in the world, asking God for forgiveness, a task which we have no idea whether we have done well until the High Holidays come around again without disaster. We are monads, everyone praying for themselves, their loved ones, and for this benighted and perverse world. We look forward to the Third Temple, when the burden on us is not so great, and when we can rely on the Kohen Gadol. This world has become very large, and we have a set of earnest, learned, and upright men and women who can do the job. And if you doubt that there are female kohanim, our OC Jewish Collaborative employs a Kohenet, one of many. She will have to get used to flaying and dismembering the sacrifices, but perhaps one day she will be High Priestess by right and do everything without a mistake.

09/3/22

Dostoevsky in Hokkaido

The Idiot (Hakuchi, 1951), Kurosawa’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot (1868-69), opens with a snowy, murky image of the smokestack of a steamer on its way to Hokkaido. According to the script, this is a ferry taking passengers from Aomori to Hakodate on a December night of one of the postwar years which could be placed anywhere between 1945 and 1951. Within seconds the image is invaded by the sound of a foghorn and swallowed up by clouds of steam. The next shot is a close-up of an ice-covered porthole with worn shoes stuck on the sill – a telling detail of the harsh and shoddy conditions of postwar transportation. The camera meanders slowly downstairs, tracking the angled bars of a banister through which one glimpses a crowd of sleeping passengers spread across the floor of the lower deck. The sudden glimpse of a chaotic mass of prone and prostrate bodies cannot but evoke memories of war: dead bodies left on a battlefield, wounded bodies in a hospital at a military camp, or bodies numb with fear, cowering in bomb shelters. In 1951, an overcrowded underdeck would have vividly reminded viewers of the frantic escape of Japanese settlers from China and other colonial territories in anticipation of the allied armies’ arrival. The overcrowded trains of the South Manchuria Railway and ferry transports from Dalian to Japan stayed embedded in cultural memory as desperately chaotic passageways to survival. 

Continue reading
08/5/22

Stump speech (Stemwinder Version)

The MLA invited me to contest the position of Second Vice President this year. Why not, I said, and then learned that the two other nominees were dear friends of mine– so I can go into this election, unlike most of the elections I vote in, knowing that no outcome is undesirable.

The MLA asked me for a statement of professional concerns. Hoo boy, do I ever have some! But they limited my statement to 250 words. Here’s the statement as it stood before I cut it down. There are a lot of things to fix or grouse about, both in the Association and the world it inhabits, but have a look at my shortlist.


The MLA is a hybrid of learned society and professional organization. A learned society exists to advance the interchange of ideas through meetings and publications; a professional organization exists to advance the collective practical interests of a professional group. In good times, the liveliness of discourse and the growth of the profession seem to be two aspects of a single process, and membership in the guild affords access to both; but in hard times, that bond weakens. I hear from my students, who have been facing a remarkably scanty job market for years, that they plan to join the MLA when they have a professional foothold—not, as before, in order to get one. How can we give them a better reason to join and stay?

It is no secret that the career of language and letters, the rise of which was contemporary with the founding of the MLA, is under material threat for reasons beyond our control. Budget-cutting legislatures, boards of trustees influenced by newspaper accounts of the futility of humanities degrees, administrators tempted to balance the books by hiring adjuncts rather than regular faculty, and now heavy-handed attempts by politicians to prescribe what may or may not be taught in schools and colleges make it hard to predict that a viable number of young scholars will enjoy freedom of research and secure employment a generation from now. At such a time the professional organization’s purposes must be manifested clearly.

I look forward to working with the MLA’s staff and membership in arguing for the value of humanistic knowledge. Of primary urgency is combating bans on books, subject matter, and styles of scholarship. We must join other organizations in defending colleagues and programs that defy racial and gender biases inscribed in law and society. But beyond negating the negation, we must put forth and advocate a vision of the good in matters of culture. Some years ago, in the midst of the Bush wars, I was honored to be a member of the committee that published “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World” (Profession, 2007). We demonstrated the benefits of expanding and diversifying the teaching of other languages, ranging from recognizing the value of immigrant communities to lowering the antagonism of political discourse. It is time to revisit these questions, and others. 

For the values to be defended are not exclusively tied to foreign language learning, but encompass all facets of reading, debate, critique, and information access. Book bans endanger the very possibility of an informed public. Conscious and persistent lying by political figures undermines the idea of deliberative democracy. Xenophobic myths flatter a public that wants to externalize blame and sees difference as a threat. Defunding cuts off the development of talent and curiosity. We need to counter these threats with such powers as we have: the knowledge of language, semantics, rhetoric, composition, translation, and our readiness to listen to every kind of speech community. I think these powers are adequate to fuel a lasting resistance to narrow-mindedness and exclusion. 


E poi basta. A bon entendeur salut.

05/6/22

The Paul Farmer Index

Tracy Kidder heard Paul say it, and so did I: “he murmured something about how much could be done in Haiti if only he could get his hands on the money that the first world spent on pet grooming.”

Pet grooming? According to the Census Bureau,

Over the decade ending in 2017, sales of pet care services doubled, to a total of $5.8 billion, according to the latest Economic Census statistics.

The pet care services industry (NAICS code 812910) includes services such as grooming, boarding, training and pet sitting. It does not include veterinary services, boarding horses, transporting pets, pet food or other pet supplies.

With over 100,000 pet care service businesses, this industry increased its number of establishments by more than 60% since 2007, for both employer businesses and self-employed (nonemployer) businesses.

I propose a Paul Farmer Index. Let a percentage of pet-grooming expenses be set aside every year to build free hospitals and clinics for the poor. Get your pets professionally groomed, the more often the better! The best-looking pets will then indeed be man’s best friend and not humanity’s most adorable competitors.

04/29/22

Forced Exercise

Formalized in 1952 by the United States Congress, people are asked “to turn to God in prayer and meditation.” The president is required by law to sign a proclamation each year, encouraging all Americans to pray on this day (Shouldn’t we all be praying everyday?) – my synagogue newsletter

Dear Synagogue:

While I myself pray, I think that the dismissal of those who do not and do not want to is problematic.

Some people dislike God to the point of active hatred. I knew several Holocaust survivors for whom this was the case. God’s inaction severed the covenant. There are others who believe in a faith called maltheism, in which God is real but is the enemy of all mankind, serving to maximize humanity’s agony and frustration. None of these people should be compelled by legislative injunction to “pray to a God who does not save,” as the Alenu puts it. Jews are pluralists out of necessity, lest our rights be trampled on by the much larger majority. We should not try to visit compliance on this much smaller minority.

Yours, Jonathan Cohen

04/18/22

“Yo yo” cry the deer

I salute the birth of a sister blog: Barbarism as Method, animated by Elvin Meng. If you heard an echo of Asia as Method (Takeuchi Yoshimi, Chen Kuan-hsing) and of Barbarolexis (Alexandre Leupin), you’re in the right neighborhood. You’ll find intensely material attention paid to old books in languages few speak, with interludes on the Book of Changes, monks with guitars (okay, qins), and dogs that do and don’t bark.

I sometimes think the promise of the Internet faltered at the precise moment when people deserted blogs for the shorter, easier, and often non-verbal communication of FB, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and so forth. If a few brave scribblers are ready to get back on the leaky vessel of the blog, that’s a good sign. You have enough space in a blog to say something that goes beyond the knee-jerk, and may even involve such turn signals as “But,” “however,” “nonetheless,” “considering that…” and “At the end of the day.” And if you are moved to add a comment, it had better bear comparison with the foregoing, or you’ll feel that you showed up to the party with nothing but an empty trick-or-treat sack. So join the party. In the words of the Book of Songs,

“Yo yo” cry the deer
As they feed on wild bracken.
I have a noble guest:
With harps and strings sound the welcome!

04/17/22

How Odd of God

Sholom Auslander, “Let’s Pass Over God,” New York Times, 4/15/2022

I am not learned as Mr. Sholom Auslander is. I never had the opportunity to go to a yeshiva; the closest was my synagogue’s Hebrew School. But, yes, God does and has done many disagreeable things. In 1670, Baruch Spinoza wrote a book on this subject that Clarence Darrow might have cribbed for his arguments in The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. It is not commonly read these days.

Strangely, people often do not get the God they deserve. Our history is of brutality, persecution, and wars of annihilation (see the Book of Joshua). Our Hebrew Bible speaks in the idioms of violence and comfort; retributive, collective violence, as flashy as a Dirty Harry movie, that drives Mr. Auslander’s classmates wild; comfort in a time when God should be helping human beings pick up the pieces, but is instead smashing the pieces into dust.

When the verse “Pour out thy wrath” comes in the Haggadah, it is an expression of frustration and disappointment that God has not saved us by doing violent deeds on our behalf. It is a wish for a Dirty Harry end to history, where God strikes down the wicked one by one, with a witticism every time. We still have such wishes. 25% of Republicans and 15% of Democrats believe that this country can only return to a true path by exterminating the members of the other party. The two numbers flip every time the Presidency changes party. This is a very Godly solution.

The other solution is Moshiach, whom the Passover Seder prefigures. When God slays the Angel of Death, it may spark in Him a change of heart. The late Rabbi Steinsaltz, in his book on the Lubavitcher Rebbe, says that the Messianic Era will mark a period when the world gets so much better that a couple of decades later, it will segue into the World to Come. All the unfinished business about what God did and what we did will be dropped in favor of love. It will be a universal armistice and reparation. We know that God can act as we do. Still, can’t we posit that we both could learn before it’s too late, before there are no more human beings in the human experiment?

P.S. – If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the argumentum ab intra — the meteorologist who doesn’t believe in wind, the infectious disease doctor who doesn’t believe in vaccines, and, yes, the favorite of the evangelical chicken dinner circuit, the Jewish convert to Christianity who explains why Judaism isn’t “true” from his “insider” perspective. Even though Mr. Auslander has the unrestricted right to denounce his own faith and become an apostate, I worry that Jews and non-Jews alike will get his message but not the context. “Turn it around, turn it around, for everything is in it,” said Rabbi ben Bag-Bag, referring to the Torah. It is all in there, good and bad.

04/15/22

From a talk about Paul Farmer

I went to Johns Hopkins the other day to give a talk about what I chose to call “Medical Humanity” (the singular was intentional). One paragraph from the talk, I think, gets the point across:

Taking a phrase from his Haitian interlocutors, Paul often spoke of “stupid deaths”— deaths brought about by human negligence, fecklessness, miserliness, obstinacy, and the like. Death comes to us all, of course, but the point is to forestall the avoidable deaths. Medicine in the immediate sense and in the larger sense of social medicine tries to do that. But are any deaths not stupid? Attempting to fix a meaning on a death is a task that should be approached with the utmost forbearance and caution. But from Gilgamesh on, the job of the humanities has been to surround death with auras of potential meaning. If we who deal in words and images and ideas are unable to hold off stupid deaths, we can at least avert the stupidity of those deaths. Pluck the flowers from the chains, my fellow humanists! Our assumption should rather be that all deaths are stupid, consummately stupid, until proven otherwise. 

43 years of friendship have at least taught me that much.

“Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?”

03/22/22

“Obedience and support are the same.”

I realize that Anna Netrebko is to her country what Elizabeth Schwartzkopf was to hers, but can you imagine if the Soviets had asked Van Cliburn to denounce Eisenhower as a condition of his playing at the Tschaikovsky Competition?

[Commenters elsewhere have pointed out that in the Cliburn example, there was no American “inciting event” on the scale of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I would call these events Operation Hardtack, large-scale U.S. ground testing of nuclear weapons rising to a record high in 1958, and Operation Argus, exo-atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons to in future knock out Soviet air and space defenses. (Operation Argus worked in some respects, but it seeded the continental U.S. with radioactive fallout.)]

03/16/22

Twenty Tons of TNT

This country has learned nothing about nuclear brinksmanship in the past seventy years. 1956: the Hungarians overthrow the USSR puppet government, and Soviet tanks go right back to crush the Hungarians and re-install the puppets. The United States does nothing; Hungary is not worth setting the world on fire. 1968: Roughly the same thing happens in Czechoslovakia. The United States does nothing; Czechoslovakia is not worth setting the world on fire. And then there’s now, where the predictable decision is being made, aided by Putin’s declaration that he will launch if conventional forces arrayed against him seem like they’re going to win. We spent how many millions on RAND and the War Colleges for them not to have come up with an answer for this?

Yes, I’ve heard about the benefits of statesmanly multilateralism. All I can say is that if it doesn’t work before Ukraine is destroyed, it gets the President the “He Kept Us Out Of War” medal, which is what Woodrow Wilson got, and no better.